Harlequin Without His Mask

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

I have been indifferent to Rankin. I’m not a follower of fashion, and have never had much interest in which brand he has favoured with his efficient but derivative image making. I’ve been to a number of his exhibitions, but can’t remember ever reviewing one. Rankin is one of those photographers whose style is the absence of style. When you see a single picture of his, you can’t tell it’s by him, and when you see a number of them together, you can’t tell whether he was deeply involved in the subject or merely contracted to it.

Rankin has often, for example, exhibited his pictures of his partner, the model Tuuli, and I have consistently been unable to see any special affection in the pictures that might distinguish his treatment of her to that of his other models. To be precise, I don’t mean merely pictures in which the model happened to be his wife: it might be quite wrong for those to have any legible trace of their private relationship. But Rankin has exhibited pictures specifically as a love story, and those come out looking just like any other nice clean cheerful safe pictures of a woman. Rankin can certainly supply you with a pout, a smile, sultry come-hither eyes or what have you. Bags of what looks like energy or charm. But there is something mechanical in his photography beyond which I have found it difficult to get to anything more interesting.

No doubt precisely that contributes to his very considerable commercial success.

If you want conventional unchallenging studio photography which presses simple emotional buttons with no great demand upon the viewer (and that is exactly what a large majority of commercial clients think they want), Rankin may well be your man. He is not, I find, particularly interested in trusting the pictures to do his communicating. He is happy for his pictures to take their overtones and undertones from the words which accompany them. The pictures are just-so; they do an excellent job. But they never challenge you to rethink your world, never ask to draw upon deep reserves of memory or understanding. Rankin does not weave complex patterns of ideas, of the kind which photography weaves so successfully out of allusion and quotation and reference. He does not dance that constant lovely edge between what we are made to see and what we know already.

In the terms I have used earlier in these pages, he may not even be a photographer at all, although there is no doubt of his mastery as a camera operator.

Or so I thought.

I went a few days ago to Liverpool, to see the various manifestations of the Look/13 Festival. Rankin is showing at the Walker Art Gallery, a very ho-hum sort of exhibition entitled ALIVE: in the Face of Death. It tells heartening stories about the drive and vigour that some people can show under tough medical circumstances, and most of the pictures are relentlessly jolly. The majority are portraits of the patients or former patients themselves, with a few footnotes (such as a group of professional Ghanaian mourners) thrown in. It’s not at all a bad idea to speak in public of death more than is the norm in Britain, and the Walker is to be applauded for that. A few visitors will indeed be heartened by the show, and will take away from it a mental picture of resolve or gaiety or some similar linear characteristic. Most of the pictures are nothing more than illustrations of the thesis and they are completely missable. Yet in among all that, I confess to my considerable surprise, Rankin has put a group of astounding portrait studies which not only make the show worth seeing but also made me wonder if I should begin to rethink the photographer.

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin calls these portraits life masks, and I had thought that they were no more than a rendering of a still face by one photographic technique or another. But it seems they are not: in April of 2013, The Scotsman published Ian Rankin’s (the novelist’s) own pictures of his face being moulded in plaster, presumably for the sitting with his namesake photographer. They really are pictures of life masks.

The first thing I liked was how universal the people become under these circumstances. A degree of difference is maintained by the sheer age or youth of skin: the model Abbey Clancy plainly has a smoother mien than Ian Rankin. But all these heads photographed exactly the same way become studies of mankind as well as just studies of people.

They are, of course, a typology. You can photograph any number of variants of an object the same way, and hope to find some revelatory common ground between them. That is an idea so tired it has not much left to yield. But life masks go right back to the very beginning of photography on at least two counts.

To have such a cast made – even with quick-drying plaster – demands the kind of stillness that has not really existed since the long exposures of the very early days of photography. Daguerreotypists frequently used a head clamp, to enforce stillness. Real stillness is not merely a technical matter: it changes the psychology of being portrayed.

That stillness does things to the face being photographed, and to our reading of it. W.M. Hunt has amassed an entire collection (published in The Unseen Eye) of photographs in which the eyes of the sitter are closed, or masked in some way. He has a particular affection for pictures in which the eyes are masked by a chance effect which then gives an extra something to the photograph. He explains that this gives some reading of the unconscious, and he may be right: certainly it is by the eyes that we most usually engage with each other. Masked eyes automatically mean that some engagement less than usually direct is going to be involved.

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.   This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt's brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.
This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt’s brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

One of Brassai's graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.   Also from WM Hunt's Unseen Eye.

One of Brassai’s graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.
Also from WM Hunt’s Unseen Eye.

The second reason I say life masks go right back to the earliest days of photography is that photography absorbed some of the main ideas of physiognomy, ideas very current in the decades before photography which survive within photography even though substantially discredited elsewhere.

Masking is intrinsically challenging. One part of photography’s appeal to most viewers is a strange element of voyeurism. Not that all subject matter is looked at with sexual eyes, but that there is a recurring pleasure in being able to take more time to view with intensity and concentration than is afforded when looking at things in vivo. Look carefully in the real world, and you are always out of time before you can have fully grasped what you see. Look carefully in a photograph and things (physical and associational) appear which seemed to have been hidden. That produces a pleasure in seeing: it provides its own rewards by revealing more or revealing otherwise. Masks both repel that kind of scrutiny and invite it. I defy anybody not to look harder at a mask than they do at a face. It’s almost as if the mask carries within itself the invitation to unmask if you dare, to unmask if you can. Look hard enough at a mask and it might just dissolve.

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates' British Moths, 2011

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates’ British Moths, 2011

I wrote on these pages not long ago of the shaving-foam masks of Marcus Coates, in a piece called British Moths 2011, which continues to intrigue me. On that same occasion I mentioned Erwin Blumenfeld, who used masking as an absolutely central weapon in his armoury. Blumenfeld would mask the model in an amazing variety of ways, including using strobes with a telescope attached that allowed him to use light itself as a mask. But he also used bobbly glass, venetian blinds, heavy shadow… The new (May 2013) exhibition of Blumenfeld’s fashion work at Somerset House in London contains a number of masks or images dependent on masking, and some of them are very close in conception to Rankin’s series at the Walker.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936. Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936.
Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

A catalogue of masks in photography would certainly be enormous, ranging over factual anthropological studies, a host of make-up effects in fashion, various kinds of sport, and the unwitting masking of the kind that W.M. Hunt assembled in his book. S&M masking is a subject in its own right. The humble pair of dark glasses may be no more than a sketch of a mask, a request to be viewed as though masked, and therefore a plea to be unmasked.

I’m interested by the idea that the face is only one small remove away from a mask all the time. By a minimum of manipulation, a photographer can turn a face into a mask, and by doing so redouble its compelling force to be viewed. That manipulation can be through a physical process of mask making, as by Rankin. It can be by a manner of photographing, as for example by the German modernist photographer Helmar Lerski.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner's Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).  Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner’s Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).
Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

One of the great successes of the Tate’s 2007 exhibition How We Are, curated by Val Willams and Susan Bright, was the fresh impetus given to the beautiful portraits of destroyed faces by Percy Hennell. Hennell was a technically inventive specialist in colour photography who worked in the Second war in a number of Royal Air Force hospitals. Many of his pictures of the reconstructive surgery undergone by patients (often after severe burning) are in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. We stare at a Hennell sitter with a terrible mixture of pity and fear and relief that such a thing has not happened to us. We also stare hoping against hope to find legible marks of character behind the disfigurement. In Hennell’s pictures, the mask is often of a peculiarly extreme kind. It is a still a mask, but made of flesh itself. And that, oddly, seems to be not so extreme after all. It seems that all faces are masks when seen in a certain light.

Percy Hennell, Wartimne injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

Percy Hennell,
Wartime injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

The phrase at the top of this page is from Thackeray’s English Humorists, where he writes in the chapter on Swift: “Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin”.

Shamanism and Shaving Foam – Marcus Coates

Marcus Coates, Shamanic Costume for Consultation in Stavanger, Norway, 2006.

Marcus Coates is one of those British artists so far over the border of eccentricity that it has sometimes been hard to take him seriously.  He practises a form of shamanism which enables him, by communicating with the animal world, to arrive at radically new perspectives on the human. Here is a simple listed description of his costume for a shamanistic consultation in Stavanger in 2006:  “Suit (1940′s), dance rattles, brogues, red deer, prescription glasses with clip on shades” .  The red deer is worn on the head, by the way, and dance rattles (in case you asked) are sets of key blanks on key rings.  They look like bunches of keys, except that they don’t open anything.  They’re keys for the dispossessed, and no doubt they do rattle nicely if you dance while waving them about.

It is easy to poke fun at this stuff, and no doubt many do so on a regular basis. Sometimes Coates plainly goes too far: a recent piece was a stack of scaffold boards of different lengths, which were supposed to have acquired significance because they corresponded to the wingspans of several species of albatross.  This is absurd.  There’s nothing there, neither emotional, nor intellectual and not even really in aesthetics.  But Coates doesn’t care.  As he sees it, his performances as a kind of medium communicating with the animal world will elicit interesting questions from onlookers whether they believe in what he’s doing or not.  And he is not merely doing it as an abstraction, protected by the security of gallery walls.  Coates has, for example, been known to put animal skins on his head in order to help the residents of a blighted South London housing estate on which his father had worked a number of years before.

I surprised myself by finding that a piece of Coates’ was one of those I liked most of all at Frieze.  I’ve waited a number of days, and my intrigue has not turned into indifference and nor has the excitement of the piece diminished in memory. Coates was represented at his gallery, Kate MacGarry’s stand in Regent’s Park, by a simple grid of self-portraits.  Sequences and series and grids were absolutely the flavour of the month for photographs at Frieze (I might write a piece about that if I ever get around to it), so I was quite ready to shrug and pass on.  But Coates’ grid is a big success.

Marcus Coates, British Moths, 2011

It consists of vertical (portrait format) pictures each about the size of an A4 sheet arranged in a rectangular grid six wide by four high.  The repeat is formulaic to the extent that camera position, lighting and so on do not vary from frame to frame. And what is depicted is just the head of the artist, smeared in shaving foam.  That, inevitably, is mainly white, so the background is dark.  It’s called British Moths, 2011, and it’s far, far bigger than the sum of its parts.

The part of the work which is specifically Coatesian is that each portrait is given the name of a species of moth found in the UK.  These titles may or may not add a layer of significance: you may find that the portrait entitled Drinker Moth (Philudoria potatoria) has a Hogarthian feel or that the Delicate Moth (Mythimna vitellina) shows a particularly lacy configuration of shaving foam, but I don’t and I forgot the names of the species as soon as I’d read them.

What is much more exciting is the way the shaving foam blurs the contours of the face and in so doing points us towards a common reading of portraits that is not very often acknowledged.  Marcus Coates’ shaving foam takes us right back to the very early days of photography.

When you leaf through a magazine and a portrait of a stranger impels you to say “Oh, I don’t like the look of him”, you are making assumptions about the person based solely on your reading of a face.  There is an often quoted bon mot usually attributed to Camus that “after forty,” (or thirty – I’ve seen both given with confidence) “a man is responsible for his own face”. Yet a face tells us almost nothing about the character who inhabits it. We all habitually think that we can adduce concrete certainty about the inner person from the factual map of the outside.  This is a residue of phrenology, a Victorian science which boomed just before photography.

The root ideas of phrenology are not necessarily entirely wrong.  Nobody I think today disputes that certain attributes of personality and of behaviour are situated in certain parts of the brain. Phrenology was the science which said that there were conclusions to be drawn about the type of a character from the shapes of the various parts of his brain visible from the outside on the surface of the skull.  It formed a part of that congeries of ideas which can loosely be called physiognomy.  These were much more important in Victorian art than is sometimes acknowledged: certainly a detailed description of a face in Balzac is not just a matter of features.  It’s a decided map of character, too. These kinds of ideas survived a surprisingly long time.  I remember for example the peculiar insistence with which the right wing writer John Buchan described one of his villains as having ‘hooded eyes’.  I’m not sure it was a specifically anti-Semitic hint, but it was certainly an invitation to distrust someone on grounds of physical characteristics which objectively meant nothing at all. Some aspects of these ideas came down a scientific route, from Lavater to such varied practitioners as the chief of the identification service of the Paris police during the Commune, Alphonse Bertillon, or the English polymath (inventor of the weather map) Sir Francis Galton. Other elements of physiognomic thinking were less empirical than these, and stemmed ultimately from Swedenborgian mysticism.

Physiognomy (and phrenology as an aspect of it) became associated with a (very Victorian desire) for social control.   Certainly, Bertillon was convinced as late as the 1870s that if you could only amass detailed physiognomic information about enough specific criminals, you could begin to draw conclusions that would be valid for genera or types.  He believed  that you could measure a person’s vital statistics and be able to predict criminal tendencies in advance.  In other words, Bertillon argued that the shape of a man’s head could reveal infallibly a tendency towards murder or other crimes against the person or crimes against property. From that, it was only a matter of amending legislation before preventative arrest and incarceration might put the (bourgeois, moneyed) citizens at ease. This is uncomfortably close to nasty ideas along the lines of eugenics (and survived notably as a set of anthropological ideas underpinning a certain facet of European colonialism).  By the 1840s the specific vogue for phrenology was beginning to diminish.  But thinking along these lines didn’t disappear.  It became subcutaneous, a set of prejudices.  And it did so at precisely the moment when photography was getting into its unstoppable stride.

My sense is that photography simply absorbed a chunk of phrenology. We to this day still think we can read in faces sure evidence of character.  There is a certain code:  thick, fleshy lips signify coarse appetites; eyes ‘too close’ together suggest untrustworthiness and so on.  Highbrow has even become quite openly a word of character not of anatomy. It suggests intellectual rigour, even a touch of condescension for the ordinary run of life.   None of these make any sense:  you actually don’t know a person until you know him, whatever your prejudice may suggest.  And you don’t ever really know a person simply from a photograph.

Gervais Lombe Yao Kouassi (Gervinho), Photographer unknown, nd.

The person with the highest brow I’ve ever seen is Gervinho, the (potentially marvellous) Ivoirien forward recently hired by the Arsenal football club.  I have never met Gervinho, and I certainly don’t want to fall into precisely that automated thinking that I am referring to here, but I doubt that he spends much of his time reading the Arcades Project in German.

This is what Marcus Coates’ shaving cream points us towards.  By softening and changing the factual map of his face, it not only makes it impossible for us to read his character; it makes us acutely aware of how hard we look for precisely the kind of legible hints I have been describing.  Part of my fascination with British Moths, 2011, is that I found myself looking much harder at it than I might have done sans foam, in some kind of attempt to see if I could beat the foam at its own game and read character in spite of it and through it.  It helps in this context that it’s a self-portrait, too.  I don’t think there would have been much interest in photographing a model in shaving foam.  It would have been just a temporary costume, a mask.  Whereas on the features of the person who is both model and artist, it takes a real place in that complicated dance between the model trying to project one view of himself and the artist trying to reveal perhaps another.

Lots of photographers have used masks, of course.  Sometimes they use physical masks of the balaclava helmet variety, and sometimes they mask by photographing with clarity obscured one way or another.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Self-Portrait with Paper Mask, New York, c. 1958

Erwin Blumenfeld, a photographer of much greater psychological shrewdness than most, used both strategies frequently and with mastery.  Not at all above putting a paper bag over his own head, he was also fascinated by the whole range of screening effects that could be achieved: he loved photographing through bobbly glass and semi opaque materials, and was a genius at double and triple printing to accentuate and conceal as he required.

Coates has done his masking with shaving foam.  It should be ridiculous, childish.  But the material itself has marvellously evocative fluidity, such that it becomes a strong element of the success of the piece as a whole.  The reshaping of these heads has the perfect immediacy of terracotta, particularly those terracotta studies made (often pending the client’s approval, or just as maquettes to help get the masses right) before a final version in much chillier, more forbidding marble.

Studio Jean-Antoine Houdon,
Portrait Bust of Christoph Willibald Von Gluck (1714-1787), c. 1770

Coates’ shaving foam is lively, seductive. Some years ago the great illustrator Ralph Steadman made a series of portraits on Polaroid SX-70, manipulated in the few moments before it set. They had a kind of energetic line which many mistook merely for violence, but which was really much more to do with how much or how little character could be grasped in a glance.  Steadman called these things Paranoids, and they are something of a precursor of Coates’ shaving foam.

Ralph Steadman, John Lennon, c. 1980

Coates has done a wonderful thing.  By daring the slightly silly feat of smearing himself in squirty gloop, and by having the very considerable artistic judgment to control and make sense of what happened when he did, he has made a really big artwork.  His foam flings us right back in the history of portraiture. The foam offers hints of a person inhabiting it, and then contradicts itself. It invites us to stare hard at it, and then laughs at us doing so.